Saturday, September 15, 2012

How Can Technology Save the Great Apes?

Local photographer's photo of chimp hunters, unafraid of repercussions
Internet is ubiquitous in most of the first world. We can tweet about lost dogs, text friends who are in the same room, and Skype our moms from a bonfire in the middle of the woods to wish them a Happy New Year.

As a result, we can stay abreast of current news. Internet technology was instrumental in the coordination of crowd activities in the riots in Egypt. Japanese tweets during the earthquake helped to mobilize response teams and let family members abroad know that their loved ones were safe.

Yet there are areas of the world where no such technology exists. I work in the northern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where even most Congolese mobile providers do not have towers.

The only option for me to get online and transmit the things I saw was through an Inmarsat BGAN that connected directly to a satellite and gave me relatively speedy Internet at an extremely high premium. I had to use it sparingly, since my employers were paying $500 a month for only 100MB of upload and download traffic, 3% of the data I use on my PHONE in a month.

The resulting Internet isolation makes sharing knowledge in these areas difficult, and applying conservation laws and initiatives nearly impossible.

Case in point: during my second field excursion, I passed a convoy of five bicycles carrying elephant meat, distinct because of its particular odor.

Three days later, a team of policemen came by, acting on a report that there had been elephant poachers in the area. The elephant poachers were obviously long-gone, and the policemen, aware that they had no chance of success, instead killed a giant pangolin (another protected species), ate it, and went home.

Now, how could technology remedy these scenarios? It's not with the invention of new technology, but the application of technology that has proven itself SO instrumental in the Western world.

Imagine if we focused on blanketing remote countries like DRCongo with cell towers?

Suddenly, the ability to communicate information quickly and efficiently changes how we work within the field. Researchers could broadcast their findings to their supervisors and other researchers. Sharing of information real-time would enable the sharing of ideas and help identify patterns that could be addressed immediately within the field to aid in conservation projects.

Alerts about illegal activities, orphan trading, or bushmeat could be disseminated easily. Many of the laws designed to protect great apes are NOT being enforced because no one knows they are being broken.

Increasing scientists' ability to transmit their stories publicly can also help to raise awareness for great ape conservation.

With the application of first world mobile technology: the construction and expansion of cellular service and coverage in remote zones that also serve as habitat to some of the most endangered great apes, we can bring communications up to speed and enable ourselves to better protect and predict threats to these important species.